The kindest thing one can say about “Mother Riley Meets the Vampire” is that it is a historical train wreck. The production itself easily qualifies as being among the very worst things ever put on film. But the story behind its creation is rather compelling. “Mother Riley Meets the Vampire” marked a double-nadir for two icons of the silver screen: Bela Lugosi, the ultimate movie horror villain, and Arthur Lucan, who inexplicably enjoyed a long and popular career in Great Britain by putting on women’s clothing and creating the character of Old Mother Riley, a boisterous Irish washerwoman.
In 1951, Lugosi was pretty much considered washed-up in Hollywood. Despite a highly entertaining performance as Count Dracula in the very popular 1948 comedy “Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein,” there were no more film roles for him. When the opportunity arose to star in a British tour of a theatrical revival of “Dracula,” Lugosi grabbed the chance and sailed with his wife Lillian across the Atlantic.
British provincial theater audiences, by all accounts, enjoyed seeing Lugosi live in “Dracula.” But, alas, the tour was financially mismanaged and closed before reaching the West End. Stranded in London, Lugosi had no funds to return to America and no jobs waiting for him in Britain. Until a completely ridiculous opportunity arose via George Minter, the producer of the long-running “Old Mother Riley” film series which was very popular with British provincial audiences but which was completely unknown in the United States. Minter felt that having a well-known star like Lugosi could possibly help bring Old Mother Riley across the Atlantic – while also helping to breathe new life into a seriously ailing franchise.
Arthur Lucan created the Old Mother Riley character for the British music halls in the 1920s and then brought it to the movies in the late 1930s. Fourteen low budget features were made, which usually involved Old Mother Riley saving the day by raising funds for a troubled institution, running away from various villains, or one-upping the snobs in class-ossified England. If anything, the films were consistent – consistently awful, that is. Lucan’s act pretty much relied on regurgitating unfunny Irish stereotypes, turning his washerwoman into a shrill, screaming, language-mangling idiot. It also didn’t help that his act included Kitty McShane, who played Old Mother Riley’s daughter. McShane was Lucan’s wife and was widely regarded as being the least talented woman in British entertainment. She was visibly too old for the ingenue role and not graceful enough to carry the musical numbers which inevitably pockmarked their movies. Between Lucan’s shrieking and McShane’s off-key singing, it is amazing that audiences did not burn down the cinemas playing their films.
In fact, audiences loved the movies – for a while, any way. Fourteen films were made from the late 1930s through 1950, but their appeal began to wane towards the latter part of that period. If audiences were cooling off, the stars of the act were in heated conflict. Lucan and McShane were just as poorly matched off-screen: a combination of alcoholism and temper made their union notoriously turbulent, and in 1951 their career and personal problems ended in a bitter separation.
The logic that has-been Bela Lugosi could somehow re-energize the Old Mother Riley films seems hazy, but nonetheless a screenplay was quickly cobbled together when Lugosi’s availability became known. McShane’s absence was more than compensated by a vivacious newcomer named Dora Bryan, who cheerfully played the foil to Lucan’s frantic antics.
“Mother Riley Meets the Vampire” casts Lugosi as Von Hoosen, a mad scientist who wants to take over the world with an army of giant robots that run on uranium. To secure that power source, he kidnaps the daughter of an Italian scientist (huh?) who has a map of a recently discovered South American uranium mine. Von Hoosen, by the way, sleeps in a coffin and wears a Dracula-worthy wardrobe. While he fancies himself as a vampire, everyone knows he is not.
Fate (actually, the Royal Mail) deals Von Hoosen’s plans a blow when the delivery of a robot prototype is delivered to Old Mother Riley instead. Von Hoosen gets the washerwoman’s package instead: a collection of bedpans and bottles left in an inheritance by a late uncle. Using telepathic skills, Von Hoosen activates the robot and has it kidnap Mother Riley. The washerwoman is surprised to find herself delivered to Von Hoosen’s mansion, where the scientist employs her as a cleaning woman. He also considers her to be a juicy source of blood, and feeds her a meat-heavy diet (steak for breakfast, liver for lunch and beef for dinner) to make sure her Type-O supply is high in iron. Mother Riley reacts to this diet by rolling her eyes and trying not to vomit.
Beyond this, Mother Riley discovers the abducted Italian girl (remember her?) with the help of a young maid (Dora Bryan, playing the surrogate daughter role once held by McShane). The police are called in and there is much mayhem, with Mother Riley wrestling one of Von Hoosen’s robots before pursuing the scientist in a wild chase. Needless to say, Von Hoosen does not take over the world (that achievement would be scored five decades later by the Halliburton Corporation, but that’s another movie).
“Mother Riley Meets the Vampire” has one thing going against it: the film is thoroughly unfunny. There is not one honest-to-goodness laugh to be found from the first frame to the last. Even Lugosi, would could easily parody his Dracula image, is barely functioning here. He seems more like a zombie than a vampire, dropping his lines so carelessly that it seems he was spitting them out so as not to be burdened with a rancid aftertaste.
As for Lucan, forget it. The effects of alcoholism are clearly visible here, both in his ragged appearance and his dull comic timing. Unable to find anything new or interesting to do with his trademark character, he repeats the same boring knockabout of his previous 14 movies. Thus, there are endless yelling matches with angry rent collectors, endless skewering of the English language, endless gasps at being threatened by various miscreants, endless pratfalls in slapstick violence, etc. As far as Lucan goes, the film is literally a case of been there/done that.
The one good thing to arise from “Mother Riley Meets the Vampire” was Lugosi’s ability to gain money to return to America. Another good thing was the supporting cast, who used this flimsy film as a springboard for bigger and better roles in British entertainment. Dora Bryan would become one of the most beloved stars of British theater and television, and gained immortality as the sluttish mother in the film version of “A Taste of Honey.” Also in the cast was Hattie Jacques, a chubby comedienne who would become a staple of the “Carry On” comedy films. Well-known character actors Laurence Naismith and John Le Mesurier also had early roles here, and veteran comic star Graham Moffat (who was a sidekick to British comedy legend Will Hay) tiptoed out of retirement for a brief appearance.
“Mother Riley Meets the Vampire” was a commercial failure and effectively ended the series. Lucan returned to the music hall circuit, where he continued playing his washerwoman character until his death in 1954. His estranged wife Kitty McShane tried to revive the act with another performer as Old Mother Riley, but audiences rejected it. She died in 1964.
Contrary to producer George Minter’s hopes, no American distributor wanted to pick up the film. Plans were considered to delete the scenes with Lucan and create new footage for an American version, but nothing came of that. The film was unseen stateside until a company called Blue Chip Productions obtained it in 1963 (seven years after Lugosi’s death). The title was changed to “Carry On Vampire,” which was meant to cash in on the “Carry On” comedy films from Britain. When the “Carry On” producers sent a cease-and-desist notice, the film was then retitled “My Son, the Vampire.” Inexplicably, comedian Allan Sherman was hired to film a new introduction and to perform the title song. While Sherman was enjoying his own popularity at the time, his presence did not help the film. Over the years, the film popped up again under other titles: “Vampire Over London,” “The Vampire and the Robot” and even “Dracula’s Desire.”
“Mother Riley Meets the Vampire” fell into the American public domain and for years it was available in badly duped prints. Cheap videos from PD labels have been commonplace, owing entirely to the Lugosi name. The poor quality of the film and the lack of name value for Lucan have prevented any genuine American commercial release.
“Mother Riley Meets the Vampire” is a sad and sorry footnote to Lugosi and Lucan’s careers. Only rabid fans of both stars are advised to seek it out. Otherwise, it is best left to gather dust, moss and rot on the shelf.
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Posted on November 11, 2005 in Features by Phil Hall
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